Change, challenge and new beginnings
Renowned as a global beacon of excellence, Saïd Business School has reinvented its offering to prepare for the new academic year
A pandemic that curtails human interaction and disrupts travel creates a host of challenges for almost every operation, not least a global business management school with hundreds of students from around the world. Far from being cowed by the enormity of the challenge as Covid-19 hit, however, Saïd Business School took it as an opportunity for change and reinvention.
The School had already started on a process of operational change under the leadership of new Chief Operating Officer Sara Beck, who joined in 2019 after 28 years at the BBC, most recently as Director of Monitoring. Her plan was to celebrate the talented individuals who make up the School’s internal skillset and to refresh its approach to working across teams on more inclusive joint projects.
‘I was looking to create connections, for us to be one school,’ explains Beck. ‘We’d had a successful ‘Inspiring Women’ series built around the campaign for ‘an equal world being an enabled world’. There were many different pockets of activity from staff and students and that kind of joined-up working has helped hugely — then and in the months following.’
As well as exploring ways to modernise the operation with heightened focus on collaboration, there was a practical push forward with plans for a £60m redevelopment of nearby Osney Power Station into a state-of-the-art residential teaching facility. Permission to start on the site had been granted, but then the pandemic hit.
The fallout from Covid-19 forced the School to look at the way it delivers its services. With over 400 staff, it had a growing online programme portfolio and was already working to modernise its learning structure for a more digital future. ‘Plans that may have taken years to agree and implement started to take shape within weeks,’ says Beck.
It had already invested heavily in technology, software and equipment so practical delivery of a new way of teaching and learning was possible. ‘We pivoted to digital delivery almost overnight. We didn’t miss a beat.’
But the trick lay in creating a delivery framework that would work seamlessly for a global student base which could be blended with a hybrid learning plan for the next academic year, which also looked uncertain.
By the time the UK went into lockdown in spring, Oxford Saïd was already delivering all of its content online. ‘We were prescient and well prepared,’ says Beck. ‘We transitioned into a 24/7 remote system for the School. There was enough structure in place for the operation to continue almost unhindered. We delivered the whole of the Trinity term online.’
The effort to maintain continuity of teaching and learning was immense and was underpinned by a real desire to succeed. ‘Our faculty and staff displayed incredible flexibility and imagination about what was possible,’ she says.
Part of the School’s imaginative take on transitioning was leasing the Oxford Playhouse building to add to its capacity to hold large lectures in socially distanced spaces. ‘We gave them a mutual lifeline as they had no business and we needed the space,’ says Beck.
The School worked to government and University guidelines and introduced a range of practical Covid safety measures, including Oxford’s onsite testing for staff and students, digitised temperature checkpoints at every entrance, one-way systems, adequate spacing, signage and provision of face masks.
It also rolled out Crowdless, an innovative app developed by an Oxford DPhil student initially designed to help people navigate safely in conflict zones. It gives detailed information on the capacity and current population status of campus spaces, allowing students to move from crowded areas to places with fewer people.
‘There were no half measures. Everyone rolled their sleeves up to make it happen with extraordinary performances and commitment,’ says Beck, ‘and at the same time it was driven by a desire for it to remain an excellent Oxford experience for our students and participants. Going into this new academic year, we’ve had to finesse and improve the system we embraced during the crisis,’ she adds. ‘We can’t forget how much we’ve achieved over the last six months. It’s been outstanding.’
Covid has changed the educational landscape forever, but with imagination and agility, Saïd Business School is already setting the standard for the future of higher education.